Yogurt made national headlines the first week in May when the New York State Senate passed a bill to make yogurt the official state snack. The legislation was debated for nearly three-quarters of an hour, with senators mulling the distinction between snacks and meals and whether only New York-made yogurt would qualify. The frivolous dialogue provided fodder for late-night talk show hosts Jon Stewart and David Letterman, with Mr. Stewart describing the deliberations as “maybe the best 40 minutes” of legislative debate ever.

The bill, which originated as a classroom project by fourth-grade students from a dairy-producing area in western New York, now awaits approval with the state’s Assembly.

It was about one year prior when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the state is America’s yogurt capital after it surpassed California in 2012 as the top yogurt producer. This was the first time since data on yogurt production have been available that New York led the nation in all yogurt production.

Specifically, New York yogurt manufacturers produced 692 million lbs of yogurt in 2012 compared with 587 million lbs in California. By comparison, in 2011, California producers made 627 million lbs compared with 554 million lbs in New York.

Yogurt may be an economical coup for New York, but nationally, it is celebrity. Not only has yogurt conquered increasing real estate at retail, in refrigerators and lunch bags, it’s now a double-digit growth category for many food service operators, according to The NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. Total dollar volume of yogurt shipped through broadline distributors to food service outlets grew 10% and units shipped grew by 7% in the year ended Sept. 30, 2013, compared to a year ago, according to NPD’s SupplyTrack.

While Greek yogurt is the star of the category, yogurt products targeted to children also are experiencing growth as yogurt gains recognition as a nutrient-dense health and wellness food. Further, much like the ice cream category, artisan yogurts are gaining traction in the specialty and natural foods channels. Specialty yogurt/kefir products experienced $2.3 million in retail sales in 2012, which was practically double from the previous year, according to the Specialty Foods Association, New York.

More than a snack

Call it a meal, meal replacer or snack, thanks to advancements in ingredient technology, product developers have an array of tools to formulate unique yogurt products to allow for differentiation in the crowded refrigerated dairy case. It is these innovations that have transformed refrigerated yogurt from a heavily discounted, female consumer-skewed diet product to a premium-priced, protein-packed power food that has become a staple for many Americans.

“Yogurt has become a sophisticated indulgence that comes in a variety of textures and flavors and we expect to see continued broadening of this category in the U.S.,” said Jessica Henry, marketing manager, Idaho Milk Products, Jerome, Idaho. “While yogurt consumption is up in the U.S., we are still nowhere near the consumption levels of other countries. As consumers shift toward healthier lifestyles, they will look to dairy products, such as yogurt, due to their high content of calcium, protein and vitamins.”

Torben Jensen, application manager, Arla Foods Ingredients, Denmark, which has U.S. offices in Basking Ridge, N.J., added, “The yogurt category is really competitive, but it’s also one where consumers are very responsive to genuine innovation, so this gives manufacturers the opportunity to create products with a real point of difference.”

Chobani leads the way

For New York, the drama began soon after Chobani L.L.C., Norwich, N.Y., purchased a shuttered yogurt plant in New Berlin, N.Y., from Kraft Foods, Northfield, Ill. Very quickly, New York became a leader in Greek yogurt manufacturing.

Chobani showed Americans that authentically strained Greek yogurt is a protein powerhouse. Ingredient suppliers make it possible for non-strained yogurts to be protein powerhouses, too. After all, not all yogurt manufacturing plants are suited for strained yogurt machinery. Ingredient technology helps formulators overcome the processing hurdle.

“To compete in the higher-protein yogurt category, many companies are producing Greek-style yogurt using the addition of extra protein,” Ms. Henry said. “Milk protein ingredients are simply added to the milk base to reach the desired protein level.”

Idaho Milk Products produces milk protein concentrate and milk protein isolate from fresh skim milk. The ingredients commonly are used in yogurt applications to increase protein content as well as replace stabilizers.

“The ratio of casein to whey proteins in a yogurt formulation depends on the desired protein content and firmness of the finished product,” Ms. Henry said. “For example, a milk protein blend containing 50% to 70% casein and 30% to 40% whey proteins yields a desirable firm yogurt gel with smooth texture.”

Arla Foods Ingredients offers whey proteins designed to boost the protein content of drinking yogurts to as much as 10% protein without reducing drinkability.

“At the opposite end of the scale, we have proteins that help build a really thick viscosity, which is perfect for indulgent yogurt desserts,” Mr. Jensen said. “Whatever the application, our proteins are designed to be added to the milk prior to processing and dissolve easily.”

Ms. Henry added, “Milk proteins also assist with water binding, and thus increase viscosity and produce a strong yogurt gel. Unlike some stabilizers, milk proteins have a clean dairy flavor that does not mute natural yogurt flavors or mask the intensity of added flavors. When part of the formulation, manufacturers can often reduce costs by decreasing the usage level of added flavors.”

Companies producing strained Greek yogurt are faced with some unique challenges, in particular the high level of waste created in the form of acid whey.

“We’ve looked at this from two angles,” Mr. Jensen said. “The first is to make it possible to eliminate acid whey altogether. We’ve done this by developing a processing and ingredient solution that means Greek yogurt can be made without the separation step. It produces significantly increased yields with none of the waste associated with conventional Greek yogurt-making techniques.

“The second approach we offer is a dairy protein that enables companies to actually use the acid whey waste stream from the Greek yogurt process to manufacture high-quality fermented drinks. It essentially enables dairies to make money from what is otherwise a costly waste stream.”

Adding value through innovation

“The U.S. yogurt market is in the midst of a major transformation,” said Ivan Gonzales, marketing director for dairy with Ingredion Inc., Westchester, Ill.

Since the arrival of Greek yogurt, consumers are now more interested in trying new flavors, formats and textures.

“As the yogurt market becomes more saturated, producers will need to differentiate their yogurt in new ways,” said Jeff Lambeseder, regional product manager for DuPont Nutrition & Health, New Century, Kas. “This may include sugar reduction, ingredient label simplification or removal of less natural sounding ingredients. Another way to differentiate yogurt is by adding functional ingredients such as probiotic cultures, fibers or multisource protein fortification for sports recovery.”

For example, yogurt is an ideal vehicle for fortification with omega-3 fatty acids.

“We have two avenues to pursue from a consumer interest and sourcing standpoint,” said Ruben Abril, senior technical manager-nutritional lipids for DSM Nutritional Products, Parsippany, N.J. “We offer an algae-based DHA and a fish-based EPA/DHA. Both are proven sources that can be added with confidence to yogurt products at levels ranging from 16 to 50 milligrams of DHA or EPA/DHA per serving of yogurt. The addition of the ingredients can be easily done by adding directly to the white mass or to the fruit prep, depending on the type of yogurt.”

Brande Brooks, marketing manager for Cargill Texturizing Solutions, Minneapolis, agreed that yogurt manufacturers must be creative to get noticed.

“Differentiation will be key to drive the premium yogurt market with improved nutritional profiles and flavor extensions such as savory yogurt,” Ms. Brooks said. “In addition, yogurt will continue to grow beyond its traditional category into adjacent categories such as dips and dressings.”

Cargill offers a range of stabilizers to improve processing efficiencies and provide cost-optimization advantages in new or reformulated products.

“They’re designed to provide improved texture and body, optimum mouthfeel and sheen, clean flavor delivery, longer shelf-life and increased product stability,” Ms. Brooks said. “The blends may also be used as a replacement ingredient for dairy solids, dairy proteins, eggs, fat and gelatin. They even allow manufacturers to enter the Greek yogurt market with no additional capital investment.”

Keeping labels clean

Clean label in yogurt is important, said Mr. Gonzales.

“Dairy products, in particular yogurt, enjoy a very clean and healthy image with consumers,” he said. “Manufacturers have always been careful to keep this image as they formulate their products. We offer functional native starches to assist with stabilization. They are labelled simply as starch while still delivering good process tolerance and shelf life stability for yogurts and fruit preparations.”

When it comes to yogurt, textures are almost as varied as flavors, thanks to the myriad stabilizers available.

“While we continue to see the yogurt category grow in size, product offerings and number of manufacturers, there is much anticipation for more innovation,” said Tammy Reinhart, business development manager of food systems for Tate & Lyle, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Specifically, texture preferences among consumers are driving new product innovations.

“For example, some consumers are attracted to the crunch of granola or chocolate chips alongside the creaminess of yogurt, while others prefer the light, airy texture of a whipped mousse in a layered dessert parfait. The use of multiple textures within a food product provides unlimited possibilities for food manufacturers and the ability to meet the needs of more consumers.”

In addition to multiple textures, formulators are using multiple sweeteners, typically traditional with high-intensity types, to lower calories and reduce added sugars. This may take place in the white mass or the fruit prep/inclusions or both.

When a natural positioning is desired, many formulators are looking to stevia-based sweeteners for assistance. But Thom King, president of Steviva Ingredients, Portland, Ore., said there are many stevia products in the marketplace and they are quite different.

“Their only commonality is that they are all derived from the stevia plant,” he said. “Multiple compounds within the stevia leaves — steviol glycosides — have characteristics ranging from sweet to bitter. Isolating the purest, best-tasting components from leaves grown in a controlled environment requires technological expertise, as the method used to extract these compounds significantly impacts flavor and quality.”

The company markets a patented blend of non-bioengineered crystalline fructose, steviol glycosides and inulin that has application in yogurt fruit preps.

“It can give up to a 75% added sugar reduction and yet retains an excellent mouthfeel and flavor profile,” Mr. King said.

Carol Rainford, senior food scientist of dairy with Tate & Lyle, said, “We are introducing a stevia sweetener that enables manufacturers to formulate without compromising taste, as it lacks intense bitter or licorice aftertaste, which eliminates the need for masking agents. It can be easily added to the fruit preparation of a yogurt product and allows for a 50% or greater sugar reduction.”

Some fiber ingredients may assist with sugar reduction while at the same time adding value in terms of a fiber boost. For example, chicory root fiber, also often simply referred to as inulin, may improve the taste and texture of low-calorie products as it can serve as a replacement for sugar and fat.

“Our chicory root fiber provides a natural sweetness as high as 65% that of sugar and will mask the off-tastes often associated with high-intensity sweeteners such as stevia and sucralose,” said Scott Turowski, technical sales manager for Sensus America Inc., Lawrenceville, N.J. “It can be used in both the fruit prep and the white mass.”

Consumers are increasingly more discerning about the colors in their foods, and when you are dealing with an inherently clean and healthy product such as yogurt, artificial colors are almost always avoided. And to take it one step closer to being natural, formulators increasingly are turning to colors made from recognizable fruits and vegetables, said Kelly Newsome, corporate communications manager with GNT USA Inc., Tarrytown, N.Y.

Martin Gil, regional account manager for GNT, said, “We understand how to blend fruits, vegetables and plant sources to deliver a wide variety of coloring solutions. Spirulina, which was recently approved by F.D.A. for expanded use as a natural blue and green in applications such as yogurt, and other fruit and vegetables can be used together to deliver unique shades of lavender to violet and green, which in the past were difficult to achieve in yogurt.”

There are a number of ingredient technologies available to help yogurt manufacturers innovate to differentiate. Ingredients may help formulators develop yogurt products for all day parts, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and as a snack — New York style.